Wednesday, August 29, 2007

I Own A Polar Bear !

What weighs a thousand pounds, comes out only at dawn and lives for Morse code? It's Brutus, the silly polar bear. Born in January, 2003, his natural habitat is on shortwave radio. Brutus lives in Northern Westchester, right outside of New York City. He has also been sited at the home of a fly-fishing lawyer in Savannah, Georgia. We are never sure what he will do next, but he is always out of control ready for comic adventure!

Brutus had an unusual beginning. Believe it or not, in the year 2007, there are still many people who communicate with Morse code. Most all of them are ham radio operators who always seek new adventure and fun. It's not easy to become fluent in Morse, and newcomers cringe and pale when faced with fast-paced dits and dahs from afar. To keep the Morse community fresh and alive, several enthusiastic clubs actively train others in this skill.

One dominant club is called Fists, (referring to the anatomical part needed to operate a key.) I met Gil, callsign KG4VCG, through the Fists' tutorial Code Buddy program. (That's Gil above!) Gil was learning the code and I was his teacher. It all started, via shortwave radio, in the first days of 2003. We mutually decided to meet on the air daily at 5:30 am, right before we both left for work, to practice Morse code on the air with our amateur radio transmitters. At first, it was rough going. I had to send very slowly to Gil so he could register each character accurately. Not much was said, but we were communicating! Gil's comprehension improved rapidly, and before long, the basic material was not enough to fill a conversation. After a basic exchange of name, location and signal strength we needed more to talk about!

Suddenly, Brutus was born! One technique I had used with other Morse code students was to send text that was highly illogical. It demanded that the student receiver of the coded message be very accurate in their "copy." One morning, I told Gil I had a big, white and furry visitor sitting next to me. He was kind of a big guy and really liked to eat nearly anything he could. His name was Brutus and, by the way, he was a polar bear!

Gil was very cool about this! He understood my goofy message word perfect! His response did not miss a beat: "OK on the bear. I'll send up a bucket of fish!" This story went on for days and days and the story grew. "When will the fish get here?" I cried. "The bear is getting really cranky!" I can only imagine what passersby must have thought if they were casually reading our "mail." Was this a spy operation speaking in a cryptic code?

Over the next few weeks of practice, the stories became more and more elaborate. Brutus the polar bear participated in a parade in downtown Savannah, took a specially-arranged plane trip up to New York City and befriended a group of nuns who adopted him and tried to provide him with spiritual guidance. The amounts of fish and ice Gil and I needed for Brutus' well-being were enormous.

We started to build a small audience. When Morse code operators sign off, they often use a quick signature borrowed from the classic vaudeville jingle of closure. One station sends (in Morse code dits) "shine and a haircut" and the other station replies "two bits" (dit dit.) When other stations were listening in, they will also sign "dit dit" to indicate they were monitoring the conversation. I heard extra "dit dits" more and more often as the adventures of Brutus continued.

In the end, Gil became the finest student I had ever tutored. I must have had quite an influence on his perspective on amateur radio. Gil changed his callsign from KG4VCG to NN4CW. This was quite an honor for myself and Mr. Morse! NN refers to the U.S. Navy where many of the finest telegraphers practiced their trade. CW stands for Continuous Wave, the kind of radio signals telegraphers send through the air. Gil kindly sent a couple of momentos of thanks for my tutelage: a Navy sparkproof Morse code key and a keepsake tie clip, in the shape of a code key, embellished with the old logo of RCA (The Radio Corporation of America.) I will always treasure these gifts!

Brutus lives on to this day! Gil and I still mention him frequently in our e-mails and, of course, any time we meet on the air. Pass the seal meat and fish and shovel the ice! Here comes the polar bear of the airwaves! If you are lucky, maybe you'll hear us talking about him someday (especially if you understand Morse code!) For more information regarding the Fists club, surf to: or write to me at Dit dit!

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Just Don't Shoot !

Kivetsky was finally becoming the cover band for good times and fun. Every weekend we gigged at the best college bars on Long Island: Tabard's Ale House, The Oak Beach Inn, Rumrunners or The Dublin Pub. We earned a loyal following of collegiate girls (and sometimes their boyfriends.) Kivetsky was ready for its first big single. Were we big? We had our own blue Ford Econoline van with a sometimes-working radio! Fame was around the corner and we could even drive there!

It was the summer of 1973. Viet Nam was winding down, The World Trade Center had just opened and Watergate was in the headlines. My good friend Doug and I were both done with our spring semesters and we needed a job. Not to turn down any source of income, whenever there was a gig; Doug and I were roadies for Kivetsky. (Yes, THE Kivetsky!)

Lots of extra cash filled our pockets as we worked an endless series of prom gigs. Proms meant short sets, early evenings and big dollars. We were having a blast (even allowing for the nightly croon of Chicago's 'Color My World'.) The venues were extravagant. Huge country clubs, wedding halls and even The New York State Pavilion at the old World's Fair grounds in Flushing. The Pavilion was a restaurant in the round, many stories high, with spectacular views of Queens and Manhattan.

It wasn't a bad gig. The load-out of the van was easy. The elevators were large and roomy. The restaurant was expansive and the crowd thought we were bigger than McCartney and Wings. They loved us and by eleven o'clock black limousines were taking the partiers to The City for more revelry. Doug and I packed the band in record time and we headed down to the parking lot to open the van. We had a minor problem: The van was gone!

In 1973, the cell phone had not yet been invented. Near-immediate communication could be had with a dime in-hand and a pay phone nearby! Doug and I called one of the band members, Bruce Smith, and gave him the bad news. We couldn't rent a van that late at night so we begged the restaurant to keep our equipment locked up until morning. Bruce eventually picked us up in his Dad's car and got us home.

The van was registered to our lead singer Charleen Rhindress. We called her around eight the next morning and gave her the bad news. Her Dad contacted the 105th Precinct and made an auto theft report. Doug and I got together with our bassist, Don Lipari, rented a van with cash from last night's gig, and ran over to The Pavilion to re-claim our equipment in time for that night's gig.

The next few days were tense. We didn't have enough money to keep renting a van and we didn't have enough to buy one, either! After working a long three or four set night at the college bars, we had just enough to break even. This wasn't fun. We conspired for a solution when the phone rang at Charleen's house.

Kivetsky had just finished their first set when we got the message to call the Rhindress household. Charleen's Dad said The New York City Police had found our van abandoned in the parking lot of Bellerose Lanes, a local bowling alley, right in our neighborhood. I had my car with me, a not-so-sexy Dodge Demon, and we ran off to retrieve the van. We could hardly wait to see it hoping it wasn't too damaged and still moved forward. (This was a challenge even before it was stolen!)

It took us just over half an hour to reach the bowling alley, and on a Saturday night, it was hard to find a parking spot. Sure enough, when we cruised the parking lot we found the van with it's driver's side window still intact. Doug and I parked and walked slowly over to the van. I was hoping my key would start it and we could finally get rid of the rental. This was great! They found the van!

I looked into the van's window to see where we stood. It didn't look bad, but I could see that the door lock was damaged. Doug and I exchanged satisfied looks and I decided to open the door. I pressed the button on the handle and it opened right away! Cool!

Just as I was about to step up into the driver's seat, a low-riding long sedan screeches up in front of us. Four guys jump out and the driver pulls a small-caliber pistol on us and yells: "DON'T MOVE!" The other three guys grab us from behind and hold us tightly. Not a word is said. They frisk us down and pull our wallets out of our pockets. 'Take whatever you want. Do whatever you want. Just let me live' I say to myself. Every moment felt like an hour. What the hell was going on?

The driver, with scraggly beard and rock-star long hair, finally says "What's your name?" Doug and I reply with a quiver. "Who the hell are you? You trying to steal this van?" (We give up. Are these the guys who stole it? Are they going to mangle us for trying to swipe their catch?)
"The police told us it was here and told us to pick it up. It belongs to Charleen Rhindress. I've got the registration in my wallet" I reply.

"Shit!" the driver yells. 'We are so dead' I say to myself. Doug and I are looking at the ground, spread-eagle against the van, still being held by the posse. A long pause passes. The driver retorts: "Do you know what you've done? You've just blown a $10,000 stake out. We've been waiting here for hours waiting for someone to come back to this van. What the hell is wrong with you?" OK. Who are these guys? Are we going to live?

The accessory thugs release us. The driver, who resembles Don Felder of The Eagles, gives us twenty questions. I feel like I am trying to talk my way out of getting pummeled by the school bully. "Well, the cops told us we could pick it up and we didn't know it was being staked out and...(Please don't hurt me! Please don't hurt me!) I babbled away. Doug and I now get the hint that these guys ARE the police. The driver points to Doug and says "You come with me - and you (pointing at me) - get in the van and drive it back to the 105th Precinct. You know where that is, right?" You bet I know. Holy cow. Maybe we are safe.

Doug gets into the back seat with the posse and I climb in the van. Oh, crap! My key won't go in. The lock has been bashed. I jiggle and fumble with it. I can't turn it. It won't start. I'm thinking: 'What are they going to do to me now?' I sit there for what feels like hours trying to turn the ignition. The sedan screeches back. The driver yells "What the hell is wrong?" "It won't start!" He mumbles something to one of the guys in the back seat. A guy opens the door, walks over to the van, reaches into the ignition and starts it in a second. (Do I know how to do this? Jeez!) I put the van into drive and slowly follow the sedan down Jericho Turnpike and Jamaica Avenue back to the police station.

The gang escorts Doug and I to the main desk in the precinct. We are still shaking like a leaf. Suddenly we are in a bad episode of 'Car 54 Where Are You?' The desk clerk trumpets "State your names." After a brief stern speech, they tell us that only Charleen can claim the van. It will be held at the precinct for a day and, if not claimed, it will be impounded. We are happy. We will live! One of the officers even gave us a ride back to the bowling alley so we could get back to my car. What a night!

Believe it or not, it's now only about 9 o'clock. Doug and I decide to go back to tonight's gig and wind down for awhile. The entire band was relieved to hear the van was OK. Charleen and her Dad reclaimed the van the next morning. In a few months, the van's engine would die and Kivetsky would be looking for another van for a few hundred bucks. The price of fame!

Eventually, Kivetsky did find fame of a different sort. The drummer became a high school math department chairman. The pianist entertained the masses as an accomplished dentist. Our friend, Bruce, stayed in the business as a booking agent. Charleen became a housewife and lived happily in the suburbs. Doug and I are just happy to be alive!

Monday, August 20, 2007

I Have Seen The Future

Over-the-air analog television is scheduled to take its final breath on or before February 17, 2009. By federal regulation, all analog television broadcasting must cease. Television will only be broadcast digitally from that day forward. It will be quite a landmark day in the history of television broadcasting. Not only will the mode of transmission change, the frequencies used will change dramatically, as well.

In the New York City area, eight out of the fifteen major over-the-air broadcasters will flip channels during the analog to digital transition. WCBS-DT, now on 56, will revert back to its original DTV channel 33. WPIX will vacate 33 and use channel 11 as its digital home. Similarly, WABC and WNET will also switch digital transmissions to their current analog channels 7 and 13 respectfully. A couple of UHF stations will do the same: WLIW 21 will use 21 for its digital future. WPXN 31 will also swap analog for digital.

WNBC will remain on DTV channel 28. Fox's WNYW will continue on channel 44. WNYE, the City of New York's educational channel, will drop analog channel 25 and remain digitally on 24. WWOR will vacate channel 9 and continue on their current DTV channel 38. Spanish speaking WXTV will close analog channel 41 and use channel 40. WFUT will move from analog 68 to digital 41. WNJU will be using channel 36 after the transition. Finally, WLNY, the independent TV station from Long Island, will move digital operations from channel 57 to channel 47. You'll need a chart to follow all these changes! You will also still need a VHF/UHF antenna. Early plans to transmit DTV only on UHF channels did not bear fruit! However, television broadcasting will be limited to channels 2 through 51. Channels 52 through 69 will be reallocated to other uses. Remember when television was broadcast as high as channel 83?

One interesting aspect of this momentous event: ABC is in a heated argument with New Jersey Public Broadcasting Network (NJN) over WABC-DT's pending use of channel 7 for digital broadcasting. NJN's WNJT, licensed to Trenton, New Jersey, has been allocated channel 8 for its long-term digital transmissions. WABC must move from their current DTV channel 45 to protect digital allocations on 45 slated for Pennsylvania and Connecticut. If WABC-DT operates on channel 7, WNJT-DT, at least in theory, will be limited in its useful coverage area. NJN and WABC are searching for a compromise to eliminate interference between these two broadcasts. One solution was to allow WNJT to co-locate antennae with WABC at Four Times Square in Manhattan. The FCC has yet to decide this dilemma.

How will things look when the transition is over? To continue to see anything over-the-air with an analog TV, you will need a digital tuner or a converter box. The Federal Government has established a program to provide needy viewers with $40 credit vouchers towards the purchase of up to two DTV converter boxes per household! From January 1, 2008 through March 31, 2009, everyone in America will be eligible to apply for and use these vouchers. The Department of Commerce has $990 million allocated for this program. Another $510 million is available, if necessary! The first allocation alone would provide vouchers to cover 2,465,000 converter boxes! One would think it would be more cost effective to simply buy a new TV!

The voucher plan has a fundamental problem: DTV converter boxes are nearly non-existent. DTV set top box tuners are pricey and usually need to be special ordered by mail. A couple of manufacturers also offer computer cards capable of DTV reception. Another option is to buy a DVD recorder, or similar device, that includes a DTV tuner. Anyone looking for an inexpensive converter box will have a challenging hunt! Radio Shack offered a stand-alone DTV tuner, under the Accurian brand name, for about $90 last year. They are now extremely hard to find.

Cable television viewers will probably not notice any change at all. Analog television signals will continue to pour out of their cable set top boxes for a long time to come. DirecTV and Dish Network users are no different. No new converters or televisions will be needed in these households. It will only be the folks who still use antennas for reception (including me!) that will have to deal with digital conversion havoc! Will CBS, NBC and Fox still call themselves 2, 4 and 5? Probably, since their programming won't move off those channels on most cable TV systems.

TV DXers will enter a new world. Although some exceptions exist, the low-band VHF television spectrum, channels 2 through 6, will be nearly empty of domestic broadcasting. When E-skip season arrives in June, July and December, international analog TV will sporadically drift in from The Caribbean, South America and Canada for the first time without domestic interference. (Canada has yet to announce a plan for complete transition to DTV.) If you always wanted to log CTV, Venezuela's RCTV or Cubavision, wait until the summer of 2009! Turn on your old analog TV and wait for results! It might be all you will ever see!

Seeing Green

While most hams were getting ready for Field Day, I was getting ready for a field trip! My destination: 3100 miles to the east to visit the land of the green. I touched down in Dublin on Saturday morning, June 23rd at about 9 am. From the first moment I left the plane I felt relaxed and at home. What a beautiful place it was! In many ways, Ireland is quite similar to America, but many things were interesting and new. Let me tell you all about them!

Plugging In

Adapting to the Emerald Isle is easy, at least electronically! Ireland’s power grid provides a standard 220 volts at 50 hertz instead of America’s 110 volts at 60 hertz. Many “travel” voltage step-down converters can covert 220 to 110 volts, but most can not change the frequency from 50 to 60 hertz. American clocks may run slower than expected! A/C hum is also a couple of notes lower at 100 Hz instead of the familiar 120 Hz we all know and love. Inspect all the electronic devices you bring abroad. Many computers and battery chargers (iPod, Nintendo, etc.) accept both 220 and 110 volts by design. If that’s so, then all you’ll need is a simple plastic plug adapter! No heavy power converter would be required! Ireland uses a more rugged power connector larger than our standard three prong plug. This style is universal throughout Ireland and Northern Ireland, with one exception: If you want to use an electric shaver in a hotel it needs to be fitted with an old–fashioned two round pin plug. Also, modern A/C wall receptacles all feature individual on/off switches for each outlet. Take a look at the light bulbs! Ireland uses an interesting twist-lock bayonet style with two connection prongs in the lamp base.

What’s On the Telly?

Four Irish channels are seen most everywhere: RTE One and Two, independent TV3 and RTE’s Irish Gaelic TG4. RTE is “owned by the people of Ireland” and is somewhat similar to our PBS. Each household in Ireland is required to purchase an annual TV licence (158 Euro - about $218) to support RTE's expenses. Most of the hotels I visited also offered Britain’s BBC2, Sky News and Sky Sports and CNN International. A few satellite-delivered channels might also be available such as SkyOne.

The four basic Irish channels were well-balanced and filled with variety. Most viewed are the soap operas Fair City and the British EastEnders, Saturday Night with Miriam (a very popular talk show) and any coverage of Gaelic football or hurling (Ireland’s two great sports.) The world stops every Saturday night around 9:35 pm to watch Miriam O'Callaghan chat with the famous on RTE One. There was no shortage of programs imported from America and Britain, but many shows seen are produced in Ireland. The Simpsons are enormously popular in Ireland seen at 5:35 pm on RTE Two. I caught Wimbledon tennis on the BBC in English with a second match on TG4 with commentary in Gaelic!

Irish television is transmitted using the Pal-I standard at 625 line resolution. (America uses a different system called NTSC.) It looks a little sharper than American TV, but you may see a little bit of on-screen flicker due to the slower alternating 50 hertz power standard.

Television distribution is interesting and diverse. RTE 1 and 2 can be seen in most areas over-the-air on UHF. Two companies, NTL and Chorus, provide most of Ireland’s “cable” television via cable or over-the-air microwave similar to America’s MMDS. NTL and Chorus have recently merged nearly creating a terrestrial monopoly. Irish MMDS antennas are fitted with block downconverters shifting the received microwave signals to UHF television frequencies. In some homes, a “converter” box processes the signals and presents them for viewing. Digital MMDS provides more channels by incorporating signal compression. The widest variety of channels can be seen via subscription service Sky Digital employing 10 GHz Ku band transmission via geosynchronous satellite. Unlike our DirecTV or Dish TV satellite services, a host of channels can be seen free-of-charge using Sky equipment. Of course, Sky wants you to subscribe to one of their many pay packages!

Another interesting quirk is the proliferation of “deflector” transmitters in rural areas of Ireland. When reception is poor in an outback area, many locals have established unofficial repeater transmitters to bring wanted signals to their community for both television and radio. Deflector transmitters date back to the early days of TV and radio when the Irish public was anxious for more diverse (or any!) content. In the early 1950s, deflectors brought the first available television broadcasts to Ireland using high gain antennas on towers installed to snag and repeat BBC signals from nearby Wales. Deflectors are generally tolerated by ComReg, the Irish version of the FCC.

Turn on your television and you’ll immediately know you are not in America! First, most sets sit idle in standby mode. You “wake up” the telly by entering a program number. The power button is only used to put the set back in standby when you are done. TV surfing is arranged by program numbers, not channel numbers. Your television’s auto-scanning set-up allows you to scan the Irish VHF and UHF bands for signals. When they are captured, you assign each a program number and an ID. After your TV is programmed you will never see a blank channel. You will only see the TV services saved in your presets. Manual tuning is very difficult, if not impossible, on modern Irish TV sets.

Irish television also features RTE Aertel, an extraordinary teletext system. Aertel cleverly transmits text data along with regular TV programming. Your home TV set receives and stores the data for your use on-demand. Information worthy of an elaborate newspaper can be seen on-screen using your remote control. First, press the text button. You’ll see the familiar RTE Aertel front page. Then, you can either enter specific page numbers or use the four coloured buttons on your remote to access teletext sub-groups: Full Index, News Heads, TV Now and Sport. You can even see detailed descriptions of RTE transmitter maintenance! Try it out for yourself at:

Closed captioning is available on most RTE programs using Aertel. If you are watching BBC channels, a similar text data service called CeeFax can caption your show, as well. Open the appropriate teletext service (Aertel or CeeFax,) and simply press 888 on your remote to activate. Captions appear in several text colors to distinguish who is speaking. Many Sky channels also offer teletext. Most TVs allow you to superimpose any teletext screen over live programming so you won’t miss a beat!

Aerials Above

Oh, the things you can see in Ireland! My fascination continued by looking up! Irish TV antenna designs are amazingly diverse. I almost thought there was a prohibition on aerial use in Dublin. You have to look very carefully to see even one TV antenna in the city (and it would probably be abandoned in poor condition.) Most everyone here is on cable or watches Sky satellite. Leave Dublin city and the aerial fun begins!

The Irish use both vertical and horizontal polarities to transmit over-the-air TV signals. (The United States uses horizontal polarization exclusively.) The advantage is more efficient spectrum use allowing tighter spacing of multiple transmitters to fill in all the nooks and crannies common to the terrain. Most popular are long inexpensive Yagis. You’ll notice their unusual flat metal grid reflectors and little black button weather-sealed baluns. Other UHF designs use a few elements mounted in a V as a reflector as you would expect to see in The States. UHF bow-tie arrays, with screen back grids, are quite popular as well. Depending on your location, you’ll see any or all of these types of antenna mounted horizontally or vertically and sometimes both!

Many areas still have a remnant or two of the days when VHF transmission was prevalent here. Simple classic design VHF Yagis still stand on chimney mounts. I caught a few built as an upper VHF Yagi in one polarity along with a couple of low VHF elements in the reverse polarity reminiscent of a 2 meter / 70 cm combo familiar to hams. Satellite dishes also have a different look: You can see through most of them! Unlike American home dishes that are solid in construction, Sky dishes are manufactured using perforated mesh. Their current design is oval. Some older dishes, still in use, are nearly identical to our familiar DirecTV designs.

Ireland’s MMDS aerials are equally unusual. You’ll see LNB assemblies much like America’s designs, but the mini-dish reflector is actually a piece of metal screening that has been pressed into a parabola for economy. They are prolific all over Counties Silgo, Galway and Clare. Microwave Internet distribution is quite common using small square antennas resembling white mini-roadsigns seen on many chimney mounts or miniature Yagis usually polarized vertically.

Irish Radio

Things are a wee bit different on the radio in Ireland, as well. Bring a simple radio with continuous analog tuning! Frequency allocations on FM are in 100 kHz increments across the 88 to 108 MHz standard FM band. You’ll find stations in unusual places like 102.0 MHz. Your American digitally-tuned FM radio will only get some stations clearly since they are programmed to receive only “odd” frequencies like 92.7 or 100.1 FM. (We use a wider 200 kHz spacing standard.) An analog radio is also essential for listening to AM since stations are separated 9 kHz apart unlike America’s “even” allocations every 10 kHz. Most European stations also follow these frequency allocation schemes on AM and FM.

Many Irish car radios incorporate the BBC’s RDS (Radio Data System) on FM. Using RDS, you simply set your radio to the network you wish to hear and the radio takes it from there! You’ll only see the name of your chosen network on the front panel display. Chances are, you’ll have continuous reception wherever you go! The radio automatically searches for the strongest signal available for your chosen network and always keeps you tuned in. If you have sharp ears (or a very quiet car) you may hear a slight difference in audio level or processing when the radio swaps to a better frequency. FM stations are allocated in groups of frequencies nationwide. RTE broadcasts four networks: RTE 1 (full-service radio,) 2FM (pop rock and chat,) Raidio Na Gaelachta in Gaelic (news, sports and lots of traditional Irish music,) and Lyric FM, their classical music service. Two independent networks are also heard: Today FM (top 40 pop and chat,) and Newstalk with the motto “different station, different nation” expressing their independence from Northern Ireland. Many areas have smaller independent FM stations that serve one county or area exclusively.

As you travel you will find these networks in the same order across the dial: RTE 1, 2FM and RnaG in a row from 88 to 95 mHz; Lyric shows up midband, followed by Today FM. Newstalk is always at the top of the band up around 106 to 108 MHz. Local FM broadcasters were usually found shuffled into the middle of the FM band. Even at the most remote outposts, I managed to hear at least 5 or 6 FM stations. Many, many transmitters are used to achieve good coverage, especially in rural areas, making RDS nearly a necessity.

Local medium wave “AM” radio is almost extinct in Ireland. RTE 1 is relayed, via a 500 kilowatt transmitter, from Tullamore (located dead center in Ireland) on 567 kHz. You’ll hear it effortlessly, nearly everywhere, even during the day. RTE 1 is also available on longwave via the former Atlantic 252 transmitter in County Meath, also in central Ireland. I searched several electronics shops and never found a modern radio capable of receiving long wave. I also heard a non-identifying (pirate?) AM station in Donegal (far north) playing endless traditional American country music.

Ireland sits much farther north than our native New York at about the same latitude as Canada’s Labrador. In the height of summer, nights are quite short! You won’t see complete darkness until about 11:30 pm, and dawn’s early light peeks in around 4:30 am. Late in the evening, the medium wave band in Ireland begins to sound like shortwave in America. Without any competition from local stations, the world starts to arrive at your receiver.

Possibly the most dominant medium wave signal at night is Radio China International relayed through the facilities of RTL Luxembourg on 1440 kHz with 300 kilowatts. This is the same frequency once used by the famous Radio Lux (208 metres) that delivered rock ‘n’ roll to all of post-war Europe until the end of the 1960s. It is very odd to hear China so clearly in Western Europe on medium wave! Sweden’s 600 kilowatt station is equally prominent on 1179 kHz in English from 9:30 to 10 pm. You’ll hear them in Swedish and other languages throughout the night. Many stations can be heard in French, German and Slavic languages. You’ll also find a host of frequencies airing the BBC’s Radio Wales, Radio 5 and Radio Scotland along with independent Virgin Radio from London. A lifetime could be spent logging all the mysteries heard on Irish medium wave. I only had nine days and a little transistor radio!

Blaupunkt seems to be today’s car radio manufacturer of choice throughout the Emerald Isle. Old German-design wooden table radios, quite popular in the 1960s, can be found seemingly everywhere in quantity as antiques. I saw dozens of them during my trip in hotel lobbies, restaurants, and shop windows. They all share the distinctive Grundig design and shape with dual speakers behind the front grille cloth, two big knobs, volume on the left and tuning on the right, and white “piano keys” for turning the set on and off and changing bands. Most sets offer three bands: Long wave, medium wave and shortwave. The dials note where to look for broadcasts from places like Hilversum, Paris and Munich. You’ll also find a piano key to switch to your Gramophone (record player!) A radio restorer could easily establish a career here. I never met one of these radios that still worked!

New Technology

Ireland is a nation in waiting (for HDTV.) Many hotels and taverns have 16 x 9 sets and some of them actually display HDTV! All HDTV programming arrives from abroad via Sky satellite. Sky TV offers 9 channels of HDTV including BBC HD, the HD channels of History Channel, National Geographic and Discovery and 5 exclusive channels produced by Sky. Nearly every place I went had some sort of widescreen display, but most often it was filled with Irish sports coverage (in zoom mode) or even RTE Aertel’s teletext showing listings of Euro (currency) exchange rates. A late update: RTE aired their first experimental HDTV sports broadcast this past July.

Digital radio is beginning to be broadcast on a new band around 225 MHz via two experimental multiplexes in select areas around the country. Multiplex one carries ten RTE channels including the classic four basic services widely heard throughout the country on analog radios. Multiplex 2 features national independent services Newstalk and Today FM along with 4 local stations from Dublin. A special receiver is required to hear these tests. Ireland decided not to try in-band on-channel digital currently used here in America.

The Places You See

The most fascinating experience of my trip was not fully appreciated until several days after I left The Emerald Isle. I visited the most northerly point in Ireland called Malin Head in County Donegal. As our bus approached the site, we passed a rather elaborate small radio station. With very limited knowledge of the area, I could only guess its purpose. A quick scan with my AM/FM portable produced no clues!

We finally reached our destination: A high bluff featuring gale force winds and gorgeous expansive views. Sailors beware! The seas below were rampant in turmoil and treachery. Two abandoned buildings stood at the summit. One was a three story lookout tower and the other was a concise low profile concrete hut. Both buildings were of a similar vintage - old but not ancient. They were obviously abandoned long ago. I did not give them much thought.

As we drove away, I asked our bus driver if he could pause at the radio station so I could take some snapshots. My curiousity was piqued when I noticed the station was an outpost of the Irish Coast Guard. Outside the small buildings at the station were two short towers, about 150 feet tall, supporting a complex array of wire antennae. I wished I had a back yard like this at home! I documented the site with my digital camera as best I could. On we went!

Only after I had arrived home in The States did I understand what a magical visit that was! Some quick research on the Internet revealed the answers to my questions. The little radio station was Malin Head Radio - callsign EJM - a primary centre for marine communications and rescue support.

Today, EJM operates primarily on 1677 kHz, and the standard safety frequency 2182 kHz, in SSB. The station is home to four one-kilowatt Rohde and Schwarz transmitters, a 750 watt Scanti transmitter, a one-kilowatt Navtex transmitter and an array of professional HF receivers. Malin Head Radio is also the control point for many VHF radio transceivers installed throughout a wide area of the Irish seacoast. It is a beehive of activity for navigation and life saving support.

The abandoned hilltop site proved more remarkable. This bluff is properly known as Banba's Crown. This three-story lookout was built in 1805 by Lloyd's of London as a signal tower to communicate with passing ships. Semaphore and telescopes were used initially along with signal lights. In 1902, Marconi wireless equipment and antennae were installed at the site. The station itself was situated in the tall tower. The low profile building housed the connections and tuning unit for the antennae strung aloft. The original spark transmitter operated at 250 watts.

The Post Office took over the station in 1909. Four years later, in 1913, the station was rebuilt at its present site, two miles south of Banba's Crown, with a 5,000 watt transmitter feeding one tall mast and antenna. The average range of the new station was about 450 miles during the day. At night, Malin Head's signals could be heard 1200 miles away and beyond. The site was ideal for medium wave radio transmission. Malin Head Radio was one of scores of stations worldwide who operated and monitored 500 kHz for CW traffic. The last 500 kHz CW transmission was completed on December 31, 1988. The station now operates exclusively with SSB on medium and shortwave. They have not missed one day's operation since opening day January 1, 1902!

Journey's End

Over the nine days spent in Ireland, I never lost my smile. We traveled north into Donegal followed by a long pleasant journey south through Counties Silgo, Galway, Clare, Kerry and Limerick before casting off from Shannon. No matter where we went, rolling hills of green meadows followed us everywhere. With only six million people living in Ireland, the sheep and cattle far outnumbered people! The sights, the heavenly music, the memorable food and drink all conveyed a single message: You're very welcome! What a lovely place to be. Try it out for yourself and see!


You realize, of course, that the only reason people write blogs is to gain attention and self-esteem and, maybe, raise a little stir. I've always loved writing and talking to people about their lives. People love to talk about themselves. When they do, I love to write it down so I can tell you all about it. Of course, I will write about myself and thoughts, but I will also try to capture all that is around me. You won't continue to read unless you are entertained. I'm a theatre major. Here comes some drama!

Hopefully, my writing technique will improve as time goes by. I'm not a complete novice at this craft. I have enjoyed being a columnist with a nationwide magazine and have been published in all sorts of places. One of these days, I'll relax enough to write some fiction. My pleasure is an interview with someone who has fire and tells me all the good stuff. So tell me the good stuff and maybe I'll write about you too.

Here is my pact with you: Please keep reading and I'll keep writing. Good times ahead! Fasten your seatbelts and have a nice trip. We'll be traveling at about 30,000 feet...